Experience the American West in a land of timbered mountains and sandstone badlands, canyons and gulches, and miles of breathtaking scenery in the Black Hills of South Dakota
An oasis on the Great Plains, the Black Hills region of South Dakota is a beautifully diverse land that ranges from cool, timbered mountains to desertlike sandstone badlands. My wife, Janice, and I are fortunate to live in the southwestern Black Hills. We are avid RVers and love to travel, yet sometimes our travels take us into our own backyard — and we do have a very interesting backyard!
The Black Hills is home to Harney Peak, the tallest point in North America east of the Rocky Mountains at 7,242 feet. A hiking trail leads to the summit where you can visit a fire-lookout tower built in 1938. From there, it’s a wonderfully expansive view, but you will want to heed local warnings and take a warm jacket and plenty of water for the trek.
In one of our hiking adventures, Janice and I found a fossilized sea crustacean in a rock formation at more than 6,100 feet. From that vantage point, we could see the vast prairies that extend from South Dakota into North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. While holding the fossil, we were in awe at the vast expanse that the ancient seas must have covered so long ago. I also once found a U.S. Calvary-era brass harness button, so keep an eye out — you never know what you might find.
Called the Southern Gateway to the Black Hills, the small town of Hot Springs is also known as the Sandstone City because of its more than 35 sandstone buildings. If you are into Old West history, open spaces, beautiful vistas and abundant wildlife, this is the perfect place to base a summer vacation.
Hot Springs was founded in 1879 on the site of natural warm-water springs and was originally named Minnekahta, which means “warm water” in the language of the Lakota Sioux. Battle Mountain looms over the town, named for the battle between Sioux and Cheyenne tribes for possession of the spring waters. As legend has it, the warring tribes ultimately decided to share the healing waters for all of their sick.
Later, the city’s name was changed to Hot Springs by white settlers in an effort to attract visitors. In that day, people arrived by train at the depot next to the Fall River, a spring-fed stream that meanders through town and alongside many parks and walking trails. In 1940 the original 1890 depot became a satellite location for the Chamber of Commerce and today houses the Visitor Information Center. Walking into the 124-year-old pink sandstone building is like stepping through a portal into the past. Outside,
a sign depicts this station as the “World’s Smallest Union Depot.”
Next to the depot is an 1880s wooden jailhouse, which predates the City Hall jail that was built in 1893. The jailhouse is open daily in the summer. Old newspaper clippings tell the story of when Calamity Jane visited Hot Springs and raised a bit of ruckus across the street in the old Bodega Saloon. It was there that she was “invited” to spend the night in the local jail by the town marshal.
Because of its history and unique construction, the city of Hot Springs was named one of America’s Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Likewise, the Battle Mountain Sanitarium was given National Historic Landmark status in 2011 and named one of America’s National Treasures in 2012. The South Dakota State Veterans Home, established in 1889, is also located in Hot Springs and contains beautiful historic sandstone structures.
In addition, the National Register of Historic Places program named Hot Springs a National Historic District with a listing of 130 contributing buildings. The Fall River County Courthouse is still housed in its original 1891 sandstone structure. Hot Springs City Hall continues to do business in its 1893 sandstone building, and the Pioneer Museum houses its exhibits in a 1893 sandstone schoolhouse atop a hill overlooking the city.
Pamphlets for a self-guided walking tour of the historic district are available at no cost at either of the two Visitor Information Centers. I am employed with the City of Hot Springs, and my office is located in City Hall. Stop in and ask for me, and I will personally provide you with a pamphlet.
Evergreen Cemetery sits on a plateau above Chautauqua Park and Hot Brook Creek and is worth a visit for those interested in history and genealogy. We have found grave markers dating back to before the town was officially founded. Numerous Civil War markers include at least 16 Confederate soldiers. One of the markers is that of Confederate soldier A.J. Keller, an attorney by trade, who was hired to represent the Grand Army of the Republic (an early veteran’s advocacy organization) to petition the U.S. Congress to construct the aforementioned Battle Mountain Sanitarium, even though he himself, as a Confederate, would not be able to utilize the facility.
The Mammoth Site and Museum is quite a unique attraction. The walking tour explains that some 26,000 years ago, at an ancient watering hole, numerous mammoths and other creatures became trapped and entombed in the mud. This is a working paleontological dig with 58 Columbian mammoths, three woolly mammoths and a giant short-faced bear having been discovered so far, along with other ancient finds. This really is a must-see. Visitors are asked to inquire about overnight parking policies at the front desk or by calling 605-745-6017 (www.mammothsite.com).
West of the Mammoth Site and Museum is Southern Hills Golf Course, a spectacular 18-hole layout that was rated four-and-a-half out of five stars by Golf Digest and declared one of the Best Places to Play by Golfweek.
Being from the area, we occasionally take a dip at the city-owned Evans Plunge, a naturally flowing 87-degree, 5,000-gallon-per-minute bathhouse. It is the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills and the world’s largest natural warm-water indoor swimming pool. Evans Plunge draws visitors for the same healing ability of the waters for which the town was originally founded. Visitors are asked to inquire about overnight parking policies at the front desk or by calling 605-745-5165 (www.evansplunge.com).
Hot Springs has two major grocery stores and three propane suppliers. If you have a hankering for fresh buffalo meat, you’ll want to visit the Black Hills Meat Company on the north end of town. Also worth a visit is the Public Library, a beautiful log building overlooking the Seven Sisters mountain range.
The southern Black Hills region abounds with nature’s magnificence. To the north of Hot Springs are Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park, and Badlands National Park is situated to the northeast. To the south are the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Cascade Falls State Recreation Area and Angostura Recreation Area. Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations lie to the east, where you can visit Wounded Knee Battlefield, a national historic landmark, and the Wounded Knee Museum.
Anyone who visits the Black Hills must pay a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the world’s greatest mountain carving, with its 60-foot-high faces of four exalted American presidents. Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain-carving-in-progress that depicts Lakota leader Crazy Horse astride his horse, preserves the culture and tradition of Native Americans. The chief’s face is almost 90 feet tall, and when completed, the horse’s head will be 219 feet tall. These two monuments are about 45 miles from Hot Springs, a casual drive through the beautiful Black Hills.
For biking and hiking enthusiasts, the George S. Mickelson Trail, part of the Rails-to-Trails program, is a great day outing. The 109-mile trail, constructed on a vacated railroad bed, meanders through the Black Hills and crosses over more than 100 converted railroad bridges and through four rock tunnels. One of 15 access points, Minnekahta Trailhead is situated 12 miles east of Hot Springs. Ask locally about the petroglyphs that can be found on the trail going south toward the town of Edgemont.
We love to visit Wind Cave National Park, just 6 miles north of Hot Springs. The abundance of wildlife ranges from prairie dogs and coyotes to antelope, elk and buffalo. One time when we stopped to take pictures of a herd of buffalo, a young bull came charging up to our RV. We were concerned it would damage our toy hauler, but it was more interested in its own reflection and left only tongue marks and buffalo saliva on the trailer. Please do heed the warnings posted throughout the park — buffalo are indeed fast and very dangerous.
We like to hike the nature trails and drive around the wildlife loop where animal and wildflower photo ops are forever present. Don’t forget to visit the cave itself, and bring a jacket because even in the summer it can get chilly.
Adjacent to Wind Cave, Custer State Park is likewise home to an abundance of wildlife and has a wildlife loop where you will probably see the famous herd of wild donkeys. The park is known for the scenic Needles Highway and its many lakes, including Sylvan Lake, featured in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets. This is one of our favorite lakes in the Black Hills. Nonmotorized boats and other watercraft are allowed, and occasionally mountain goats can be seen on the hillsides.
There is much to see and experience in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the place we call home. We are certain that when you visit you will enjoy our backyard just as much as we do.
RV Camping in the Southern Black Hills
Although Hot Springs doesn’t have any in-town campgrounds, free overnight parking at several locations gives RVers time to explore the city. The Chamber of Commerce’s main Visitor Information Center at 801 South Sixth Street allows 24-hour parking and offers a free RV dump station (605-745-4140, www.hotsprings-sd.com). Other overnight parking locations include Butler Park West (by the library), Centennial Park (downtown) and historic Chautauqua Park (north of town; small campers only).
For safety’s sake, the city asks that overnight visitors call the Hot Springs police department and give their name, license number and type of RV. Those arriving after hours can leave a message (605-745-5200).
For boondockers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has several campgrounds and recreation areas near Hot Springs. Cold Brook Dam is 1 mile north of town, and Cottonwood Springs Dam, my favorite, is 5 miles west of town. Both dams were constructed to reduce flood damage in the Fall River Basin and offer an excellent variety of recreational activities including boating (electric motors only), fishing, swimming, wildlife viewing and camping (primitive, no hookups).
Angostura Reservoir and State Recreation Area is 12 miles south of Hot Springs and has five campgrounds, fresh water, restrooms and some electrical hookups. Swimming, boating, waterskiing and hiking are just some of the activities available. More information for these areas can be found at www.gfp.sd.gov and corpslakes.usace.army.mil.
Three commercial campgrounds are close to Hot Springs. The KOA campground 5 miles east of town on Highway 79 has camping in the pines (605-745-6449, www.kampkoahotsprings.com). Kemo Sabe Campground just north of town on Highway 385 offers a view of Battle Mountain and a unique display of antique tractors (605-745-4397, www.kemosabaycampground.com). And Allen Ranch, owned by County Commissioner Joe Allen, is just south of town and provides a variety of Western entertainment that includes pack trips, tepee tents and musical entertainment (605-745-1890, www.gwtc.net/~allenranch).
Wind Cave National Park is home to Elk Mountain Campground. Hookups are not available, but the campground has restrooms and potable water. The fee is $18 a night when water and toilet facilities are available. From late fall through early spring when the water is turned off, the fee is $9 a night. Visitors holding a Senior or Access Pass pay half price (www.nps.gov/wica).